The following excerpt is from
Chapter One of Matching Books to Readers
by Irene C. Fountas and Gay Su Pinnell
|Matching Books to Readers in a Balanced Literacy Program|
Children arrive at school with varying experiences in the world of literacy. Some have heard many stories and noticed critical aspects of print; others are just beginning to realize that language is represented by print that can be read again and again. This wide range of preschool literacy learning means that teachers must meet children where they are, addressing each individual’s knowledge and experience. And this challenge does not diminish as children progress through school. In fact, the differences grow, so we are always in the position of matching books to readers.
Matching books to readers depends on three interrelated sets of understandings, all of which are critical to effective teaching:
Importance of Matching Books and Readers
Why is matching books to readers so important? The young children we teach are building the network of understandings that make up a reading process. Children develop successful processing strategies as they learn to read for meaning. When children are reading a book that they can read, they are able to use many different sources of information from the text in a smoothly operating system. While focusing on the meaning of the story, they might:
Terms like "hard" and "easy" are always relevant. "Hard" for whom? "Easy" for which readers? When we use those terms in reference to books, we are always thinking from the perspective of the readers. A book is easy or difficult only in terms of a particular reader or even a group of readers. So, when we know the readers, we can think of any text as "hard," "easy," or "just right." Each kind of text has important implications for the behavior of the reader and the potential to learn.
Think about reading a text that is very difficult for you as an adult reader. It might be a legal document, a technical manual (such as the tax code), or a novel by an author with an unusual style completely unfamiliar to you. How would reading that difficult text limit your ability to bring what you know to the process of reading? Your understanding might be impaired; if you attempted to read it aloud you might even stumble over some words or use expressions in awkward ways. You might find yourself reading some sections over and over, as you attempt to make sense. You might even skip some words altogether because you are unsure of pronunciation, of meaning, or of both. If you have to skip too many words, you may become confused. Chances are, after a while you would not continue to read. You would simply discard the novel or seek the information in some other way.
In a sense, our beginning readers are exactly in the same position with the too-hard texts they encounter in school. If they are struggling, these young readers are unable to use what they know in efficient, strategic ways. In fact, forcing young readers to read too-hard texts has devastating results:
What about books that readers find easy? How do such books fit into a reading program? Easy reading is actually beneficial for young readers, just as it is for adults. Reading a book that is very easy for you requires less intensity and energy. Most of what you do is fully automatic. You read quickly and easily. You feel in control. You are probably in a very relaxed state, and you can simply enjoy the reading experience. You are able to enjoy faraway places—almost as though you are there. You can anticipate events in the text; you enjoy thinking about the plot and characters. You may become completely engaged, blocking out everything around you. You meet few problems in terms of words, and you understand the text with little effort. Many of us use this "easy reading" to while away the time in airports or to help us fall asleep at night.
Easy reading is also beneficial for children who are just learning to read. In the first place, it allows them to enjoy reading and to use what they know in a smoothly orchestrated system. With harder books, children may be reading text accurately but not processing it in a smooth, fluent way. With easy books, they are unhindered by the demands of reading because they automatically—or almost automatically—use the skills they control.
Easy books also allow children to focus on the meaning and enjoy humor or suspense. They can ask questions and find answers. They can think in a deeper way about aspects of text such as characters, settings, or plots. They may encounter challenging issues that offer a foundation for discussion after the reading.
Easy reading gives children "mileage" as readers and builds confidence. They process a great many words and build up rapid word recognition as well as fluency in processing. Easy reading frees them to attend to new aspects of print and thus engage in new learning. They can read for meaning and use language in an orchestrated way.
So, texts that are easy to read are appropriate for some aspects of literacy instruction. We recommend that in the classroom children have the opportunity to engage every day in a large amount of easy reading. But to help young readers learn more about how to read, we need more than easy reading.
"Just Right" Texts
Our purpose in literacy education is to help readers learn more—to nudge them beyond their current development and help them expand their skills. We want to support their efforts to stretch as readers—to successfully meet the challenges of more demanding texts.
To help young readers build an effective network of reading strategies, teachers must select texts that allow individuals to read for meaning, draw on the skills they already control, and expand their current processing strategies. In other words, the text used for learning "how to read" must have the right mixture of support and challenge.
The reader must be able to process or read the text well. That means
The text should be just demanding enough to enable the readers to work out problems or learn a new strategy. The goal is not just about learning new words and adding them to a reading vocabulary, although that will inevitably happen. It’s about the processing, the "working out," that helps readers learn the skills and strategies that will make them independent—strategies that they can apply again and again as they read other texts. The "just right" book provides the context for successful reading work and enables readers to strengthen their "processing power."
Readers in Relation to Texts
Meeting children where they are developmentally requires that we assess their understandings of print and the strategies they are beginning to use to make sense of print. As teachers of children in grades K–3 we encounter a wide range of readers, from those who are just beginning to learn about print to those who can read just about anything we give them.
As we observe children’s behavior we need to keep in mind a broad continuum of learning. As we accompany and guide children’s literacy development, we need to be ever-mindful of definitive characteristics and behaviors. The goal is to support children in using what they already know to get to what they do not yet know. That means knowing our learners and working "on the edge" of their learning. In Figure 1-1, we have described general characteristics of readers at five levels.
These categories are generally useful in helping us think about the broad characteristics of readers. No one child will exactly fit one of these categories, and children will evidence behaviors in more than one category.
This is the art of teaching: we observe and describe children’s precise reading behavior and, in so doing, build a working understanding of each child as a reader at a particular point in time. In this way, we can trace changes in behavior as children learn and grow and plan sensitive instruction that supports them every step of the way.
Books, Readers, and the Reading Process
The purpose of matching books to readers is to provide the right books—those that provide reading opportunities that will help children develop an effective reading process. Our goal for children is to help them develop the kind of processing system that makes it possible to learn a great deal more—a system that extends itself (Clay 1991). As indicated in Figure 1-1, "self-extending" readers use many different sources of information in an orchestrated way. A competent reader reads the words and does so with great accuracy, but processing a text involves much more.
Reading is a complex process that brings together a reader and a text. Competent readers bring everything they know to the process, including:
Knowledge of the reading process is a critical element in matching books to readers. This knowledge helps us examine texts from two perspectives: (1) we note the demands of the text on the reader; (2) we consider what the particular reader knows how to do with a text. With this information we can begin to make a match:
Work with colleagues to explore text difficulty in relation to children’s diverse needs.
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